April 22, 2003
Power to the Puppets
"Avenue Q" heads for Broadway
Attention, Tough Pigs readers and all our ships at sea: This message is being sent out on all frequencies. Avenue Q, the puppet musical for grown-ups, is finishing its Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theater on May 11th, and moving to the John Golden Theater on Broadway, starting July 31st.
And if you are within the sound of my voice, then trust me: Go And See This Show. You Will Love It.
The show takes place on a friendly, run-down street in an outer borough of New York, where puppets and humans live together and learn about the world. The difference between this street and any other similar street is that on Avenue Q, the lessons are for twenty-somethings, which means the puppets need jobs, and they drink and have one-night stands.
So here's part of the Avenue Q lesson plan, as performed by lead puppets Kate Monster and Princeton. Princeton asks Kate if she's related to their neighbor Trekkie Monster -- after all, they both have the same last name. But Kate takes offense: It's so racist to think that all monsters are related! It's just like saying all monsters look alike!
Princeton retorts that Kate's dream of opening a school exclusively for monsters is racist too. Then they break into a peppy song, which is kind of a Joe Raposo/Jeff Moss "Believe in Yourself"-type anthem called "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist":
The whole show is like that. It's fantastic. If you love the Joe Raposo/Jeff Moss style of songwriting -- and again, if you're reading this website, then of course you do -- then the Avenue Q songs will make you bounce in your seat. The show's creators, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, have imagined an alternate universe, where that kind of light-hearted pragmatism is applied to adult concepts, like how to interpret a mix tape you got from a boy you like, and why you sometimes feel like killing the person you're in love with.
But the best thing about the show is that the puppets interact with the human cast live on stage, with the puppeteers in full view -- so the performers are acting, and dancing, and operating the puppets all at the same time.
The puppeteers are all Sesame Street veterans, and they get to show off an amazing range of talents that you'd never see watching Sesame. The puppet and the puppeteer play off each other in a complex way; it's like watching two people performing the same part at the same time.
John Tartaglia, who's performed on Sesame Street, Animal Jam and The Book of Pooh, plays Princeton, a young kid fresh out of college with a B.A. in English and no noticeable job skills. Princeton moves to Avenue Q at the beginning of the show -- he started at Avenue A, he explains, and worked his way down until he found a place he could afford. Princeton is looking for his purpose in life, with typically depressing results.
Tartaglia also plays Rod, an uptight investment banker who has a desperate, secret crush on his roommate and best buddy Nicky. Rod's in denial about his sexuality, and he has a hilarious, show-stopping closet-case number bragging about "My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada." ("Her name is Alberta! She lives in Vancouver!")
Stephanie D'Abruzzo -- who's known to Muppet fans as the performer of Lulu and Elizabeth on Sesame Street, as well as roles on Wubbulous World, The Book of Pooh and Oobi -- plays Kate Monster, an idealistic kindergarten-teacher's aide who wants to make the world a better place... and find a decent boyfriend. D'Abruzzo also doubles as Lucy, a very (ahem) forward lounge singer who could find a home on any night-time soap, no questions asked.
Tartaglia and D'Abruzzo both throw themselves into their roles with all the energy of the talented chorus girls who are finally getting their chance to take center stage. They've both spent years doing background puppets, and now they have the opportunity to develop major characters -- and they're clearly having a really good time proving how great they can be. Remind me again why they don't have major characters on Sesame Street? Oh, right, cause they're gonna be Broadway stars in about five minutes.
Rick Lyon -- who we know from Sesame Street, Elmo's World and Crank Yankers -- designed and built the puppets for Avenue Q. He performs Nicky, Rod's best buddy, and Trekkie Monster, who's as single-minded about sex as other monsters might be about snack foods. Lyon's voices are much closer to straight-up imitations of the Sesame characters they're parodying than the other puppeteers -- so it's especially funny to hear his Nicky singing a song called "If You Were Gay," or Trekkie Monster proclaiming that "The Internet Is For Porn."
Taking on lots of assisting roles, as well as the smaller parts of Kate's boss, Mrs. Thistletwat, and one of the Bad Idea Bears, is Jen Barnhardt, who's been seen this season on Sesame performing Gladys the Cow and Baby Bear's mom.
Oh, and there's also humans in the show, but who cares about humans? This is a Muppet site, all we care about is puppets. No, that's not true. The whole cast is excellent, actually. There's three cast members playing humans -- Alexander Gemignani as unemployed comedian Brian, Ann Harada as his English-mangling Japanese-American fiancee Christmas Eve, and Natalie Venetia Belcon as Gary Coleman. (Yes, that Gary Coleman. He's the superintendent for the Avenue Q apartment complex, and he's pretty bitter about it.)
Besides the excellent songs and performances, the thing that impressed me most about the show is that it manages to maintain a cynical, world-weary tone, without sinking into the obvious depressing cliches. The puppets curse, and they have sex on stage; they drink and gossip and whine about how much their lives suck... But they don't go for the pure shock-value that you see in those "Sesame snuff stories" that college students send each other in e-mails, where Big Bird smokes crack and goes on a killing spree. Avenue Q is adult, without being tedious and gloomy.
So I just really liked it, and you will too. If you can get yourself to New York, then just go see the damn show. If you can't, then keep your eyes out for the upcoming cast album, which ought to be released around the time of the Broadway opening in July. You've heard "Everyone Makes Mistakes" a thousand times; you know it by heart. It's time for "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist."
Puppet photos on this page
courtesy of Rick Lyon
[ There's a TV review of Avenue Q posted online on April 22nd, which includes some clips from the show: check out NY1.com to see it... ]
And PS: While I'm on the subject of cool puppet projects for grown-ups, I'll take another moment to plug Murder He Squeaked -- the really funny short film by Sesame veterans Joseph Mazzarino and Matt Vogel.
You can see the whole movie on the Pratfall Productions website, so if you haven't seen it yet, then go go go.
We need more funny puppet projects in the world, so give 'em some love.